Tonchi Weaver hasn’t taken a vacation in 10 years.
Though she retired from her job with the United States Postal Service in January, she says she’s spent much of her time off over the past decade as she did Wednesday afternoon: pacing outside the county administration building, petition in hand, smile stretched across face.
“Are you a Rapid City voter?” she asks most passers-by.
Some simply reply "No” and continue on their way. Others say they’re in a rush, or they’re running late. A few lament that though they’re not Rapid Citians, they’d sign her petition without hesitation if so. And a few actually pause for a moment, listen to Weaver’s explanation of the issue, and put pen to paper.
By 5 p.m. on March 20, Weaver and about 40 volunteers must collect and submit at least 2,095 valid signatures to the city’s finance office if Rapid Citians are to decide the future of Barnett Arena in Rushmore Plaza Civic Center. If Weaver and her volunteers are successful, the choice will be simple: build a new, 12,000- to 13,000-seat, $130 million arena or renovate the existing Barnett Arena for about $25 million.
The election would then likely be held on June 5, the same date as South Dakota’s Republican primary elections for the governorship, lone U.S. House of Representative seat, seven legislative districts, three county commissioner positions and the county sheriff, auditor and register of deeds positions.
Weaver couldn’t give an estimate of the number of signatures they’d collected thus far but sounded unfazed by the task.
“We’re on pace,” she said, adding that the goal is to have someone outside the county administration building from open to close — 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. — until enough signatures are gathered.
In the past, they’ve gotten the best “yield,” as Weaver calls it, outside city yard waste drop-off centers. But as winter lingers and those sites remain shuttered, the risen concrete slab outside the county building’s entrance is where Weaver and others spend much of their daytime hours.
Weaver inches toward the entrance stairway’s metal handrail. She knows the routine well.
“It’s really great early in the day here,” she says, turning to pace backward again. “About 3:30 (p.m.), 4 o’clock, it gets real hard to stay in the sun. It goes behind the wall.”
'We never will apologize'
Late last year, she spent her vacation time standing in the same spot gathering signatures to put the city’s water rate hikes to a special election on Feb. 20. Though Rapid Citians rejected the increases, the city has since said it will raise them regardless.
Weaver remains untroubled about that, and unapologetic for the election, which cost the city around $50,000 but saw just 7 percent of registered Rapid City voters turnout.
“Sure, things have cost money, but you know, we fought a revolution so we could vote on things, and here we are a couple centuries later and we have to preserve that right,” she said. “That’s why we never will apologize for bringing an issue to the people.”
As for the issue of Barnett Arena, Weaver says that same ethos is part of her reasoning.
“For that much money, the people should have the last word,” she said. “That’s kind of why we’re out here. Citizenship is a tough duty sometimes.”
Serving as a check on the government plays a role, too.
“It comes down to what’s prudent,” she said. “We know what’s preferable, but we want to do the prudent thing. We want to make sure that it’s a good decision all the way around.”
Much remains unclear, Weaver says, including what would happen to Barnett Arena if a new arena is built and whether the city has a parking plan in place to accommodate the increased arena capacity. Then, of course, there’s the question of what, if it’s brought to the ballot, Rapid Citians will decide.
But Weaver is sure of one thing: She’ll continue to fight for her beliefs no matter the result.
“So much tyranny,” she said, “so little time.”